Employment NoseFlash, May 2012
The Sixth Scents: Smells in the Workplace
Obnoxious perfume..... body odor..... sweaty gym clothes..... smelly lunches..... even smellier breath – all a toxic brew that suffocates productivity in the workplace. While bathing in Old Spice might seem innocuous, other employees might become overwhelmed by the fragrance. It may be tempting to ignore the awkward aromatic issues and tell complainers to do the same, but inaction leaves a festering problem. The offending employee may repel clients. Co-workers may take it upon themselves to drench the office in deodorizer or vanilla-scented candles. Or the employer may end up like the City of Detroit, which paid a six-figure settlement for ignoring complaints that perfume aggravated a co-worker’s allergies. So if nose-holding is not an option, what should an employer do?
The B.O. Squad
An office-wide email reminder should stop complaints about an employee eating popcorn at his desk. But an employee with perpetual bad breath likely will not realize that a group message targets him. Or the employee who eats foods distinctive to her ethnicity may characterize group gossip about the pungency of her meals as thinly-veiled harassment. In most instances, a straightforward, private conversation is the best means of addressing the issue.
The Nose Knows
Employers often reflexively task human resources personnel to sniff out the issues and conduct these awkward conversations. But employers should give more thought – and use plain old common scents – in identifying the appropriate messenger. An employee complaining about the lunches eaten in the next cubicle can best explain to her co-worker how the colliding herbs and spices detract from her work. If poor hygiene impacts client relationships or work performance, then the employee’s manager may be best positioned to address those issues. For an employee with a potential medical or psychological condition, discussion with human resources personnel may be required.
A Plan that Makes Scents
No matter who delivers the message, advance planning will make the conversation as inoffensive as possible and minimize workplace disruption.
Sniff out the source before meeting with the employee. Attempt to obtain firsthand confirmation of the issue and ask the complaining party for specific examples. Weed out any complaints based solely on personality conflicts or negative stereotypes.
Advise the complaining party that the employer will address the situation as it deems appropriate and ask her to exercise patience in the meantime.
Conduct the conversation in a private location and avoid nosey co-workers.
Maintain a professional tone but feel free to acknowledge that the conversation involves an awkward topic.
Focus on the impact on work performance and general workplace productivity, not individual complaints from co-workers. Be mindful not to give the impression that the entire office is gossiping behind the employee’s back.
Avoid the temptation to psychologize. It is not a good idea to ask personal questions like, “Is something going on at home to distract you from showering?” Such questions will only turn the discussion to unproductive personal topics.
If the employee reports a medical condition contributing to the smell, address it as if it were any other employee medical condition. For example, if the employee reveals her bad breath is caused by halitosis, treat that information as confidential and do not advise complaining co-workers of the root of the problem.
Work with the employee to develop a corrective plan. Rather than forbidding the employee from exercising on his lunch break, suggest he find time to shower or otherwise mask the odor. Focusing the discussion on a practical solution will provide a goal against which to measure future performance.
Although most situations will not rise to the level of requiring a formal improvement plan, draft a brief internal file note for the company’s own use in the event further action is required.
Smell Ya Later
For these “work perfumance” issues, like any other performance issue, follow up with the offender and complainer to monitor the situation and confirm that it improves. If there is no improvement, consider whether formal disciplinary procedures are warranted in light of the level of workplace disruption. Before issuing any formal discipline, however, consider the impact of religious or cultural beliefs or a medical condition, if any, and potential legal obligations to accommodate such issues.
The savvy employer does not allow complaints of workplace odor to get stale. Clear the air by confronting the problem with a bit of planning and a lot of tact.
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